Bad weather and a lack of equipment affected this year’s Northern Yellowstone elk count, but Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks officials say they have enough data to estimate that the population remains constant from last year.
A helicopter used in the past was not available this year, so officials had to make due with alternative tools for counting the Yellowstone elk population. These numbers are closely watched by many constituencies: wolf advocates, elk advocates who say the wolves are killing off the elk, and scientists of all stripes. A declining elk population could push the species into protected status, which would have some ripple effects both economically (fewer elk to hunt, fewer elk licenses to issue by the state) and ecologically.
This year’s ratios are higher than recent survey results within the same area. The 2013 count observed 19 calves and 10 bulls per 100 cows, and 11 calves and five bulls per 100 cows in 2012. A total of 3,915 elk were observed last year.
Twenty calves per 100 cows is considered the survival threshold for elk. Below that wildlife managers are concerned and above that the herd should grow.
“Actually, it’s really encouraging,” Loveless said, considering that not all of the elk were counted. “It’s on the low end to see an increase, but it’s close to stable.”
These numbers will likely to be spun several ways. Some research indicates that extended drought, and not wolves, is most responsible for bringing down the Yellowstone elk population in recent years. Elk advocates that they the decline of the Yellowstone elk population parallels the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.